A monster calls

“I didn’t mean it,” Conor said.
You did, the monster said, but you also did not.

Humans are complicated beasts, the monster said. How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can a person be wrong-thinking but good thinking? … The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day … Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for both.

From ‘A Monster Calls’, by Patrick Ness, a short, haunting, beautiful tale about human complexity and longing that’s far bigger in scope and reach than its ‘children’s fiction’ label might suggest.

It’s a story about love, and our longing and fear of being seen for who we are. And it’s about the innumerable ways we’ll twist ourselves out of shape in order to avoid saying what’s most true, because we’re scared of being judged, and ashamed at our own contradictions. And what might be possible when we nevertheless summon the necessary kindness and courage to speak.

And a hymn, to those moments in life when a fearsome choice is to be made between turning away from truth, or turning towards it – which are also moments where we choose between turning away from or towards ourselves, and the people around us.

It reminded me how often we prefer the illusory security of holding back, even at great consequence to our lives, rather than the vulnerability of speaking up.

And just how much of our lives, and how many of our institutions, can be elaborate constructions for distancing ourselves, right when we most need – and most fear – turning towards one another.

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Blinded to half of our lives

The separation of subject from object brought to us so powerfully by René Descartes in the 17th century (and which I wrote most recently about here) gave us new ways of understanding and manipulating the material world which in turn gave birth to modernity. His work ushered in an age in which at last science, technology and medicine could seriously take root. You don’t have to look far to see how much this has made possible.

But you have to look more closely to see how it has also led us into a deep misunderstanding of ourselves.

In the 19th century August Comte built on Descartes’ position to create logical positivism, which argued that nothing in the human world could be considered to have authority unless it could be objectively measured. For positivism what was real about people included behaviour, action taken, money earned, measurements made. Feeling, meaning and stories were distinctly second class as far as truth was concerned. In a stroke, positivism declared much of the experience of being alive, the unique subjectivity that makes us most human, to be irrelevant, a marginal footnote to the real stuff of existence.

We’ve enthusiastically taken positivism into the heart of our institutions and as we’ve done so we’ve understood ourselves and others primarily as objects and as consumers – a surface, materialist understanding that leaves a huge part of ourselves behind. We relate to people primarily through how they can be ‘of use’ to us, what they can get done. And consequently we are often at war with ourselves, suppressing and denying our longing for something real, something that has depth, something that’s more than surface.

It should be no surprise that positivism was seized upon enthusiastically by the architects of that most modern of human institutions, the organisation. By reducing people to surface and to measurable activity, and by discounting the rest, the early factory owners could have people become extensions of the machinery of production. It is at work in so much of what’s considered ‘best practice’ in contemporary management – in behaviour frameworks, performance grading, the banishment of the inner world from the workplace, the label ‘human resources’, and our insistence that people fit in rather than bring themselves forward fully.

Positivism is so prevalent and so often unquestioned because, in many ways, it works – just as long as you are happy that people stop being people so they can become part of the machine.

But it fails to take account of so much of what we are – symbol-making, metaphor-creating, meaning-seeking beings who navigate our lives wondering, dreaming, fearing, hoping and longing – and that our measurable doing is just the tiniest part of it.

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Alice Herz-Sommer

piano

Alice Herz-Sommer, who I wrote about in August, died this week, aged 110.

A survivor of the Holocaust, she cultivated a commitment to see beauty everywhere, and a deep interest in the lives of others. In the midst of our ordinary, everyday worries perhaps the memory of this woman – who knew such difficulties and brought such grace and gratitude to her life – can help us to see our lives, our work, and our frustrations with new, and more hopeful, eyes.

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Five-fold symmetry

You step off the train, in a hurry. So much to do.

Will you get it all done? What will other people think? Will you keep your job? Where will you be in a year, five years? Can you pay the bills? Will you get what you want? When will you get to rest? Will you find fulfilment? Satisfaction? Will you have to keep on pushing, putting in such huge effort? Can you stay in control of it all?

So many things to worry about.

And, as always, the platform meets your foot with exactly the right amount of resistance so that you can stand. Gravity holds you. Generations of human invention and discovery make possible the lighting, the locomotive pull of the train, the sliding doors, the clothes you are wearing. The air composed of just the balance of oxygen and other gases that you can breathe. And the lives of your billions of ancestors in oceans and on land, together with the extraordinary creativity of evolution, give you your eyes, mind, heart, body – the five-fold symmetry of your hands and feet.

All so that this, you, and your life, are possible.

So what if, as well as your fear and worry, you oriented to the day with the sense of wonder invited by this extraordinarily unlikely confluence of circumstances?

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Gratitude or Resentment?

Today

gratitude,

or

resentment?

Each leads to very different places,

and to very different relationships – with self, others, world.

Each creates a very different horizon.

Are you paying attention,

at all,

to which you’re cultivating?

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Actually asking

If your requests to others aren’t resulting in much in the way of action, you might like to look at whether you are actually asking anything at all.

“That office needs tidying”

“The rubbish is collected tomorrow”

“We’re spending more on travel than we should be”

“This is really difficult”

“It’s my birthday next Tuesday”

may sound to you like clear requests for help. But they quite possibly sound nothing of the sort to the people around you.

Indirect requests are a manipulation, a demand that others show they love or respect you by being able to work out what you really want. But when you don’t get what you were expecting the result is frustration and resentment. And confusion, for everyone else, when you’ve become annoyed, or angry, or withdrawn – and they don’t understand why.

Over time, such vague requests erode the foundation of your relationships even as you’re trying to get people to come in closer.

Please, if you want to enrol others in supporting you, ask them directly for what you want.

It creates so much more possibility and dignity for all of us.

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All the same

Seen against the ever-present certainties of our lives – we will die, we will grow old, all that we build or create will eventually fall apart – differences between us drop away. We are all the same.

It’s so hard to live consciously with this in mind, to reach out across the space we imagine separates us and be open to one another. So hard to share our fear, our longing, our truest hopes. So hard to stay present long enough to look deeply into the eyes of others, to fall into them, allowing ourselves to know and be known.

Why so difficult? Perhaps because of the shame we necessarily picked up along the way: sharpened every time we had to be told not to do this or that, to be this way or that way in order to fit in with our families or with our culture. Because of our self-doubt and our inner-criticism, which make it so hard to love ourselves fully (a pre-requisite for allowing ourselves to un-self-consciously love others). And because we are afraid.

And so we hold back, always reserving some distance even from those who love us the most, because that way it feels as if we’ll hold on to some measure of safety. Or we judge others, resent them or hate them, turning them into less than human-beings in our hearts, because it makes us feel better for a while.

Even though we know that our deepest connection with one another is precisely that which can save us from the void.

This is the great ethical work, so difficult to do and so necessary, which calls to us – learning the sensitivity to respond and be open to other people, who we take to be so different from us but with whom we share common ancestry, and common destiny.

For we are intimately related.

Family.

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Living your own life

“In the end, we need to feel that the life we lived was our life, not someone else’s, that it was chosen rather simply our following the instructions on the box, and that we stood in a respectful relationship to that which is larger than ordinary comforts and provided a deep sense of meaning, of satisfaction, and reciprocity. Then it may be said that we have really been here, living the life we were meant to live. The task, and the path we take in addressing it, will be different for each of us, but that is the gift we are asked to share, the gift of our separate selves.”

Beautiful, important words from James Hollis, who has written insightfully about what it takes to live a life that matters, to ourselves and the people around us.

For today, no more than that, and a link to the full article – essential reading if you’re asking big questions about what your life may be for, beyond getting what you want.

The book of his I’ve been most enjoying reading recently is Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.  It’s beautiful, profound, clear and practical, filled with wisdom for any of us who’ve woken up with the realisation that in all likelihood more than half of life is done already: when life starts saying ‘this is it – time to turn towards living while you still have the chance’.

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Harmony

I’m rediscovering the joy of working with physical materials instead of computers. The experience of creating or writing with high quality pens and paper is so different from working with a screen and keyboard. I’m more present in the work, my creativity flows from me with less inhibition and more immediacy, and I can lose myself in the feel of making something new with my hands.

For years I’ve forgotten that I’m a pen and paper person. I’m slowly remembering myself again.

And so here, instead of the typed word, is a written and drawn exploration of the nature of harmony in organisations – the mistakes we make, and what might become possible as we become more genuine and brave with one another.

In particular, it seems, harmony in its fullest form is nothing like ‘niceness’ or ‘calm’ or ‘synchronisation’. Those are oppressive, stifling forms of uniformity, which itself is constrained and lifeless. Instead how about the possibility of bringing together difference and unpredictability, and being spacious enough to hold the inevitable riot of conflict, togetherness and creativity that emerges?

More ideas in the image – with drawings inspired by the work of Dave McKean. Click to see it in its fullness.

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Measuring

For the past century and a half, we’ve become driven by measurement, a consequence of the revolution in philosophy and science ushered in by the work of René Descartes in the 17th century.

Descartes’ profound contribution was to make detached, analytical observation of the world central to human knowledge. He gave wings to the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation which has transformed our way of living. And he did so by being committed to objectivity – what’s independently observable and measurable, as opposed to subjectivity – the particular first-person lived experience of being-you or being-me that cannot be described in objective ways.

By dividing subject and object in the way that he did, Descartes gave us tools to stand back from the world with a critical, doubting eye and to make new startling new discoveries. But in order to do so he had to split ‘I’ from ‘world’ – leaving out personal experience completely because of the way it appears to arise from the mysterious insides of a person’s mind rather than being ‘of the world’.

Descartes gave us a world in which we take ‘hard’ – what’s objective – to be real and of primary importance and ‘soft’ – what’s subjective – to be secondary, often so far as to be considered of no value at all. And so completely do we live in this Cartesian world that it can be difficult for us to see how much we systematically discount by looking at the world, and ourselves, through these eyes. Even the words ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ say much about our orientation to these matters.

There will be much more to say about this over the coming days and weeks. But for now, a simple question – how often in organisational life are you insisting on looking only for what you can measure, and consequently how much of the human world of your work are you not looking at, at all?

‘Hard’ measures can tell you much about machines, or processes, or inventory, or money. But they will leave out most of what’s meaningful about the people who work with you – the ‘soft’ stuff that isn’t ‘soft’ at all and which can only really be discovered by being in conversation with others. And this is precisely because people are not objects but subjects, the kind of being that the Cartesian world in which we live goes to great lengths to discount.

Hard measures – productivity, hours worked, behaviours observed, profit earned – will tell you nothing about vital human concerns such as meaning, aliveness, longing, camaraderie, friendship, love, dedication, frustration, resentment, inspiration and so on – because people are essentially ‘I’ rather than ‘it’, subjects rather than objects.

You may well be trying to shape the life of your organisation by paying attention to what’s measurable when you should also be paying attention to what’s not measurable, but equally real.

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Our stories about our feelings

When you feel emptiness, what do you do?

Reach for something to eat?
Turn on the TV?
Pick up the free paper on the train?
Hide away in sorrow and resignation?
Zone out?
Lash out at your colleagues or your family?
Find someone to blame?

What’s the story you’re telling about what this feeling means that has you act in this way?

We’re so quick to tell stories about what we’re feeling. This feeling is something to be fixed, a sign I’ve done something wrong, proof my life is heading nowhere – or that it’s heading somewhere. It’s because of you, it’s because of my parents, it’s to be avoided at all costs, it’s precisely the thing I need to feel in order to know myself and be ok.

But our familiar, habitual stories about our feelings can imprison us in smaller worlds than we deserve.

There’s always another story you can tell.

Maybe the emptiness is because you’re tired. Or you’re under attack from your inner critic. Maybe it’s pointing you towards something essentially true about all of our existence – that everything is changing all the time and there’s not so much for us to stand on.

Or maybe you’re feeling it because you’ve forgotten something important – your essential aliveness, the deep roots of your history and biology, all that supports you moment to moment.

Each of these stories points to a different course of action. Same feeling, different response. Sleep perhaps, or an act of self remembering (creating art, meditation, poetry, music, prayer, beauty, touch).

Or maybe what to do with what you’re feeling is simply to allow it to be for a while, no correction or compensation required. And no story either. Let it do its thing and watch as it eventually, inevitably, and with no apparent help from you, changes you and turns itself into something else.

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This Is Water

This week I have been re-reading David Foster Wallace’s short work, This Is Water: a book about taking up an I-You relationship to the world, the importance of freedom, and a caution against enslaving ourselves to our own self-centredness. It’s a call to think about how we think, and about how we pay attention to our lives.

“Everything in my own immediate
experience supports my deep belief that I
am the absolute center of the universe, the
realest, most vivid and important person
in existence.”

If we’re prepared to examine this kind of narrow habitual thinking, argues Wallace, we can live in horizons much wider than a life lived on automatic pilot. By taking our part in the construction of meaning seriously we open up possibilities for connection even in the most hum-drum, irritating, everyday situations of life. We can

“experience [even] a crowded, hot, slow,
consumer-hell-type situation as not
only meaningful, but sacred, on fire
with the same force that lit the stars –
compassion, love, the subsurface unity
of all things.”

The book is a warning that much of what we uncritically worship (and we’re always worshipping something) has the capacity to consume our lives: worshipping money and things leads us to feel that we never have enough; worshipping intellect leaves us feeling stupid and a fraud; worshipping power leaves us feeling weak and afraid, always needing to pursue more power in order to feel safe.

And so it’s an invitation to choose, to orient our lives around meanings that are big enough to break us out of the prison of our selfishness, our sense of being the centre of everything.

It will take you all of 20 minutes to read this beautiful and challenging invitation to the work of a lifetime.

“Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily
true: The only thing that’s capital-T True
is that you get to decide how you’re going to try
to see it.”

Essential reading for anyone who has responsibility towards others in life – whether as colleague, friend, family, customer, citizen, or passer-by.

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Sleep

Sleep.

Source of our energy, our creativity, our compassion, our sanity.

And in the buzz and rush of our culture, in our

always-on,

‘but they need me’,

‘I’m so important’,

endless to-do-list,

‘I should’,

‘I ought’,

‘I want’

target-driven,

shame-filled

always-more society

in which we wear our busyness,

and our exhaustion

as badges of honour

perhaps the most undervalued currency of all.

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Heaven and Hell

In the The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales written by my friend Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is “Heaven and Hell”, a gorgeous story for children and adults about how our interpretations and practices are constantly shaping the world around us.

In the story, an elderly woman named Ariella is given a tour of each of two possible after-lives. Hell, to her surprise, is an elegant palace nestling in beautiful gardens. Tables are set with delicious food and everyone is gathered for a feast. But as Ariella looks closely she sees that they are all frail, desperate, and starving. Their arms are held straight by long splints and because of this they are unable to bend their elbows to bring food to their mouths.

Hell is a beautiful paradise filled with longing, sadness, meanness and misery.

Isn’t much of the world this way?

Heaven, even more surprisingly, looks exactly the same. Same palace, same food, same splints. But here everyone is well fed, and happy. The difference? The residents of heaven know about kindness, and have learned to feed one another. The very same physical situation with a change in narrative and different practices brings forth a radically different world.

It’s so easy for us to imagine that the world we inhabit is fixed, solid. We come to believe that we are a certain way, and the world is a certain way too. But it’s more accurate to say that we’re always making the world together through our interpretations and actions – what’s ‘real’ about the human world is much more fluid than at first it might seem.

And of course the worlds we bring into being in turn change us. The narcissistic, individualistic, cynical world brought about by the residents of hell keeps their meanness and their resentment going, and their starvation. And the world brought about by the residents of heaven amplifies their kindness.

When we head off the possibility of change by claiming the world is, simply, “the way it is”, or when we say “but in the real world this could never happen”, we need to understand that we are active participants in having the world stay fixed in its current configuration. The world is never only the way it appears. And that ought to be a reason for great hope for our families, organisations and society. And a call for our vigorous action on behalf of an improved future for all of us.

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In the heart of the storm

When you’re in the midst of a storm in life – some difficulty, confusion, fear, or uncertainty – it’s easy to imagine that something must have gone terribly wrong.

After all, aren’t you meant to be successful? Aren’t you meant to be on top of life? Aren’t you meant to be in control? To have it all figured out by now?

And if you’re in trouble isn’t it clear that it’s your fault?

The narrative of personal striving and personal success that so many of us have taken up as the benchmark for our lives doesn’t help here. It’s too individualistic, too solitary. It assumes you have infinite power to shape your life. And that your success or failure, your happiness or your despair are down to you alone. It’s not a big enough story to account for the kind of difficulty you’re in, to account for being a participant in a world that is so mysterious and so much bigger than you are.

No, there’s a bigger, more generous account of finding yourself in life’s storm that goes far beyond blame and fault, far beyond success and failure. Haruki Murakami has found the words to express it beautifully and clearly, in his Kafka On The Shore:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts.

Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you.

This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step…”

But the storm will pass, he assures us, and once it is over:

“You won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over.

But one thing is certain.

When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.

That’s what this storm’s all about.”

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When the conversation dies, what do you do?

When the conversation you are having dies, what do you do?

Conversations die when you tune out of them, when you stop tracking your truthfulness about your experience, when you fall back on tired routines that mean little but keep you feeling safe, when you say what you think is expected rather than what’s real, when you slip into jargon and abstract concepts, when you tell lies – even small ones – about yourself, and about others.

When the conversation dies, what do you do?

Many of us, I think, keep going as if nothing had happened.

Occasionally, this is bound to happen.

But repeated again and again, over hours, days, months, years – our diminished, fossilised conversations in turn diminish us and our relationships.

Much of the corporate world seems to have made an art out of the dead conversation. Families, people who were once lovers, and whole organisations slip quietly into deadness without even noticing. Bringing the conversation back to life seems too risky, too vulnerable.

The consequence?

Feeling safe.

And becoming ghosts.

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Nine mistakes

Nine common stories about what’s not allowed to you:

You’re not supposed to make mistakes

You’re not supposed have your own needs (others can have theirs)

You’re not supposed to be yourself (so pretend to be something you’re not)

You’re not supposed to be too happy (something’s going wrong if you are)

You’re not supposed to feel too comfortable

You’re not supposed to depend upon anyone else

You’re not supposed to be vulnerable or to trust anyone

You’re not supposed to assert yourself (so do always what others want of you)

You carry your own story about this around with you, quietly, telling no-one.

It seems so real.

It shapes your actions, your thinking, your relationship with others.

You decide what to do from inside it, and think your decisions are grounded in truth.

You lead from it, raise your family from it, work from it.

And each story hides so much from you.

Which of these stories about yourself is most familiar to you?

And can you be sure, really sure, that it’s true?

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Looking good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Two summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Accepting life

An unchangeable feature of life is that, at every moment, you find yourself inescapably in some situation or other – perhaps one that you did not choose.

And however magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living.

No manner of denial (and all the suffering that comes with it) can change that your life continues from this moment, this particular configuration, and not from another.

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is not ‘putting up with things’ but responding fully from where you are. Not pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere else.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

Many paths lead from this place.

Will you go to sleep to yourself, or step in to this, the one and only life you have?

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Stimulus and Response

After writing yesterday’s post on work and love, I was introduced to Dan Pink’s RSA talk on our mistaken assumptions about what makes good work possible.

The subtitle of his talk could be ‘Don’t think you can manipulate people into making their most genuine contribution’.

Paying bonuses for performance, argues Pink, works out only in very particular situations. Promise to reward people more for performing a mindless mechanical task, and often, yes, they’ll find the wherewithal to do it better, or faster.

But make bonuses the reason to do work that requires care, thoughtfulness, or imagination – especially if that’s your primary method of engaging them – and you’re most likely to see poorer results.

I don’t think this should surprise us. We know pretty quickly when we’re being manipulated and it often makes us cynical and resentful.

The very idea that bonuses would increase performance arises from the still-influential work of the behaviourist psychologists of the last century. They argued that the inner experience of human beings is irrelevant, and that we can decide what to do by looking just at outer stimulus and response patterns.

In many organisations we’re still caught up in the simplistic understanding of people that the behaviourists inspired. The consequence? The design of management practice based on the reward and punishment responses of animals such as rats.

But we’re human beings, with rich inner worlds that cannot be ignored just because they’re hard to measure. We are brought to life by meaning, belonging, contribution and creativity. We’re not machines, nor do we contribute any of our higher human faculties in response to a straightforwardly manipulative stimulus such as a bonus.

When we’re treated  – or treat ourselves – as if we’re something less than the complex, meaning-seeking beings that we are, it should be no surprise that we – and our work – are diminished.

Pay people enough to have the issue of money be off the table, argues Pink. And then you need to ask deeper questions.

Here’s the animation from his talk, with thanks to Geraldine for introducing it to me.

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Love

Love – genuine love for anything – is so often left out of the discourse of organisational life.

Apparently it’s not serious enough for business.

Sometimes we’ll allow ourselves passion – a word which is allowed, I think, because it sells us to others with its promise of energy and heat, commitment and making things happen. (We’re so tied up with endlessly making things happen that we’ve forgotten everything else that conspires to make it possible).

And we’ll allow ourselves cynicism and skepticism, moods which distance us from one another and give us a feeling of superiority (a kind of pseudo-sophistication in which we believe we have greater insight than everyone else around us, who simply can’t see what we can see).

Frustration and resignation are also welcomed in many organisations, because serious work is apparently meant to be difficult all the time and both of these moods, reminding us of our difficulty, tell us that we must be doing it right.

But love – genuine love? Deep, heartfelt love for something or someone that brings out our integrity, moves us, has us speak truth even when it’s inconvenient, draws us out of ourselves, can touch people with something beyond manipulation or self-interest? How often do we allow that in ourselves or in others?

We treat love with disdain.

And we’re much the poorer for it.

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The cycle of ennui and distraction

Here’s a self-perpetuating cycle that may be familiar to you:

ennui

The way out? Through the body.

Give up trying to distract and numb yourself. It only lands you deeper in.

Instead turn towards the experience. Understand that your anxiety, fear, shame are teaching you about the world. You cannot finish everything. You cannot know everything. This is the way of life, and you cannot change it.

There is nothing wrong with you.

And so instead turn into life. Step away from the screen, the to-do list. Run. Walk. Dance. Or sit quietly for a while feeling the simple presence of your body, your breathing, your aliveness.

And then, only when life has taken hold of you, return to your work and your commitments.

They – and what’s important – may look very different to you from here.

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What causes what?

Standing at the sink, washing the dishes, an old coaching client comes to mind. I don’t know why. We used to sit talking in his office or in the front room of his home, and as I remember the contours of that experience I’m quickly off into other worlds, memories, and then ideas about what needs doing now.

How strange and unruly thought is.

Later, putting away some items in a kitchen cupboard, I am inexplicably thinking of characters from a TV series that I love (which does not, as far as I can remember, ever feature a kitchen).

And writing this I find myself thinking of my grandfather.

When I was small he used to send me to the shop next door with a few pennies and instructions to buy myself whatever I wanted. I’m touched by gratitude and sadness, and find myself thinking about my relationships with my own children.

And each time thoughts arise, new actions that need taking occur to me. The course of my day – what I actually attend to – shifting in subtle and unpredictable ways.

How little we know ourselves, the quiet hiddenness from which our actions arise, what’s going to happen next. And given how little we can know of ourselves, how little we really know of others.

And how inevitably incomplete our efforts, in the affairs of our organisations, to understand what’s causing what, or be fully in control.

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What will you do…

… with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

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Life’s incompleteness

There are millions of books that you’ll never read.
Millions of films you’ll never see.
Places you’ll never go to.
People you’ll never meet.
Experiences you’ll never have.

Do you chase after what’s unattainable with resentment and frustration, raging against life’s limits? Or open in gratitude at life’s richness?

I am starting to discover George Steiner’s work for the first time. Here he is with a beautiful account of his move from fear to wonder on this very question, involving a fascinating story of the discovery and reburial of thousands of terracotta Chinese warriors.

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Care and Careful

Careful and care are quite different from one another, but we often confuse them.

Careful:

holding back
waiting until conditions are just right
being nice rather than genuine
saying what’s expected, what’s socially acceptable
protecting yourself – for the benefit of whom exactly?

Care:

coming in close
acting when it’s needed
being kind, which sometimes requires sharpness
saying what will actually help, teach, free people up
dropping your defences so you can be of assistance

Careful keeps difficulty going when it feels too risky to act. Care does what it can to reduce it.

Careful twists the truth for its own ends. Care speaks it.

Careful is full of caution.

And care is full of contact.

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Speech Acts 8: Between asking and responding

I have written often here about the difficulties we get into by uncritically saying ‘yes’ to requests so often. Resentment, frustration and overwhelm are often the result.

Some of our difficulty comes not so much from the answer we give, but from overlooking a critical step, which happens between the request being made and the answer being given. We forget to talk with the requester about what they meant.

Perhaps we get embarrassed. We’re supposed to understand what’s being asked of us, of course. Or perhaps we have forgotten that talking and listening productively is a much a form of action as ‘taking action’.

And so we rush in headlong, only to find that the proposal that was apparently urgent can wait a while. Or that when she said “I need to know all the figures” she meant just the three most important ones. Or that the budget constraints were much tighter than we expected. Or that the other project we’re having to put aside is more important. Or that someone else was already on it.

Sometimes we even find that the person asking didn’t understand all the aspects of the request themselves, or the knock-on effect of our ‘yes’.

In my work in organisations I’m surprised repeatedly by how common it is to leave out this basic step – a dialogue between requester and requested that continues until both are satisfied that what is being asked has been fully understood. Often such a dialogue will result in a different course of action being taken, or discovering that none is needed after all.

Unless we stop to talk with one another until a meaningful yes or no is possible, we’re condemning ourselves to a cycle of wastefulness that none of us can afford.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.

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What you can’t do

Please understand this:

If you want to stay in relationship with another, you can’t force them to change to suit you.

Yes, you can talk. Certainly, you can make requests. And yes, you can tell another person what emotions, what responses their actions stir up in you.

But still, you cannot force them to change.

Believing that you can is a sure way to resentment, frustration and resignation. For both of you.

Instead, can you see the difficulties you are having as an opportunity for your own development, your own unfolding? An opportunity to live in a bigger narrative, one that has space for the chaotic, unpredictable, mysterious beauty and humanity that is each one of you?

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